BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Rebels said they repulsed forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi that had stormed Benghazi on Saturday and appealed to the West to launch military strikes to check the advance of the Libyan leader’s troops.
Gaddafi’s tanks, artillery and warplanes, one of which was shot down, had earlier bombarded the city, rebels said, a day after Libya’s foreign minister announced a ceasefire following a U.N. resolution that authorised Western military intervention.
The Libyan government denied it was attacking Benghazi, said it was respecting the ceasefire and accused rebels of raiding villages and towns to draw in the West.
“Rebel forces have pushed Gaddafi’s forces out of Benghazi and are combing the western gate area for Gaddafi’s troops,” said Nasr al-Kikili, a rebel media officer in Benghazi.
“We revolutionaries have taken control of four tanks inside Benghazi,” he said.
Celebrating this success, hundreds of residents fired guns in the air and women ululated. Rebels said four tanks were captured and paraded one through the streets.
Benghazi residents, who had watched their city bombarded earlier in the day, voiced frustration that Western promises of action within hours of the U.N. resolution had not materialised. Later, French president Nicolas Sarkozy said allied war planes were already preventing air strikes on the city.
Saturday’s bombardment by Libyan forces began early in the morning. Thuds resounded and warplanes roared overhead. A Reuters correspondent saw one shot down, falling out of the sky in a ball of flames and crashing in a plume of smoke.
“They have entered Benghazi from the west. Where are the Western powers? They said they could strike within hours,” Khalid al-Sayeh, a rebel military spokesman, told Reuters.
Officials at Benghazi’s largest hospital said by afternoon that Saturday’s death toll there had reached 20, including Gaddafi forces, civilians and rebels, with 24 wounded.
A man covered in blood lay on a stretcher groaning in pain. Doctors showed pictures of shrapnel wounds and burns.
“This morning we woke up to a massacre. Lots of casualties came in. Youngsters, women at home, deliberately hit. All of these people were hit in their homes by explosions. Where is the international community we really need them to save our city?” said a senior hospital doctor who asked not to be named.
One blast hit near the rebel national council building that was barricaded by concrete blocks. Several areas of the city were struck, including near the airport.
“Fighter jets bombed the road to the airport and there’s been an air strike on the Abu Hadi district on the outskirts,” Mohammed Dwo, a hospital worker and a rebel supporter, said.
There were also reports of skirmishes early in the morning before rebels reported a concerted assault.
“They have just entered Benghazi and they are flanking us with tanks, missiles and mortars,” Fathi Abidi, a rebel supporter who works on logistics, said at the western entrance to the city where about three quarters of million people live.
He pointed to a black smoke plume on the city’s boundaries.
At one spot, rebels said they fought with people they called mercenaries for Gaddafi, a common charge. They said the men in civilian clothes had driven into the city in a car with a crate of hand grenades. A Reuters correspondent was shown blood-soaked identity papers that rebels said proved the men were Nigerian.
Jamal bin Nour, a member of a neighbourhood watch group, said he had been told government forces were landing by boat, although this could not be immediately confirmed.
Six 4x4 pick-ups mounted with machine guns were moved to the Benghazi seafront. The relatively light arms of rebel forces have proved a poor match for Gaddafi’s heavy firepower.
Standing next to his Benghazi home, Hassan Marouf, 58, said: “Europe and America have sold us out. We have been hearing bombing all night, and they have been doing nothing. Why?”
There were few signs of substantial defences outside Benghazi prior to Saturday’s offensive and few rebels carried arms even near the rebel council building, where loudspeakers blared out a Muslim prayer and the words: “God is greatest.”
Many people from the city fled, with hundreds of cars seen heading east on the road deeper into rebel-held territory and towards the border with Egypt.
“Do we have to wait till he (Gaddafi) kills us all before the (world) acts? We are very disappointed,” said Adel Mansoura, an air traffic controller fleeing Benghazi with his family.
Those left inside the city set up make-shift barricades with furniture, benches, road signs and even in once case a barbecue at intervals along main streets. Each barricade was manned by half a dozen rebels, but only about half of those were armed.
“The international community is late in intervening to save civilians from Gaddafi’s forces,” Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel National Libyan Council, told Al Jazeera, appealing to the world to stop Gaddafi “exterminating civilians”.